Female genital cutting: a rite, a torture, or both?

In today’s Times, Nick Kristof writes about the dilemma presented by female genital cutting. The practice, which he calls “one of the most pervasive human rights abuses worldwide,” prompts a critical question: where is the line between ending human rights violations and cultural imperialism?

For four decades, Westerners have campaigned against genital cutting, without much effect. Indeed, the Western term “female genital mutilation” has antagonized some African women because it assumes that they have been “mutilated.” Aid groups are now moving to add the more neutral term “female genital cutting” to their lexicon.

Is it cultural imperialism for Westerners to oppose genital mutilation? Yes, perhaps, but it’s also justified. Some cultural practices such as genital mutilation — or foot-binding or bride-burning — are too brutish to defer to.

But it is clear that the most effective efforts against genital mutilation are grass-roots initiatives by local women working for change from within a culture. In Senegal, Ghana, Egypt and other countries, such efforts have made headway.

I should warn you that the description of FGM/FGC is very graphic. And the article itself raises some really challenging questions, about violence against women, violence between women, and whether or not cultural outsiders have the right, the duty and even the ability to end that violence.

Of course, Kristof isn’t the first to cover the conflict between “rights and rites” when it comes to the practice of FGM/FGC. The amazing Michelle Goldberg wrote in The American Prospect about this very debate – it’s far more detailed than Kristof’s, and it includes the voices of the women who are on the front lines of the debate on both sides.

But what Kristof has going for him is the enormous exposure he can bring the debate simply by writing about it in the New York Times. Many of the issues he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote about in their blockbusting book Half the Sky, are issues that have been written about before, and often with more nuance, by other people. But the sheer exposure he can give a particular cause or a particular charity can boost awareness – and donations – almost overnight.

That said, if you’re going to read Kristof’s take, make sure you read Goldberg’s, too. As Courtney wrote when she addressed this very question last year, “this issue–though often presented as a cut and dried human rights problem–is actually deeply complex, colored by culturally rooted values, religion, history, ritual, and so much more.” So while it’s important to raise a broad awareness about this issue, it’s perhaps more important to raise it with the detail and complexity it deserves.

And it’s important to add to the conversation if you feel like it’s missing something – or missing the mark entirely. Kristof takes the comments on his pieces very seriously, and usually addresses them with a follow-up post on his blog, so if you want to weigh in, you should. This is a conversation we all need to be a part of, even though, and perhaps because, it is such a fraught and challenging conversation to have.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for following up on this Chloe! For those who are interested, Pathfinder International (where I work) has some fantastic programs working with communities in areas where FGC is commonly practiced. For instance, in Guinea, 95% of women and girls have experienced FGC. We have a project there focused on transforming these practices by exploring the health implications with practioners, community leaders, cutters, and community members. You can learn more here: http://www.pathfind.org/Programs_Guinea_Projects_FGC

    Kudos to you, Kristof and Michelle Goldberg for bringing these issues to light!

  2. Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I am Indian. My great grandmother was married off when she was 5. My grandmother when she was 15. My aunt’s husband died when she was 26, and she was not allowed to attend weddings or other public functions for years after. She never remarried.

    I am 28, queer identified, unmarried, an atheist and I live by myself.

    If not for British Imperialism, I would not be possible. They made widow burning illegal. If not for that imperialism, my aunt would not be alive. British Imperialism is the best thing that ever happened to my culture and to me. When ivory tower academics and literate well fed Americans want to discuss the cultural justification for imperialism, you should know that people like me exist. Though 1000 Somalian women believe their daughters should be mutiliated, there is one who is the dissenter. There is one who will grow up to regret the procedure. If westerners do not speak for that one, no one does. If westerners cause an end to something inhumane, those who have been brainwashed since birth will grouse, but I promise you that in three generations there will be plenty of women like me. Just as westerners are ashamed of the era of witchburning. I am ashamed of my culture’s era of child marriage and widow burning. I am truly thankful that the British were not too cowardly or too squeemish to bring serious changes to my culture. Literally, I could not be here living as a free person if that never happened. I cannot say enough about how much I appreciate my freedom from my ancestor’s retrograde patriarchial culture.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing your story, Nina. I had never thought of it that way, and I’m glad to hear this perspective.

  3. Posted May 13, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Powerful words, Nina. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Posted May 13, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Culture is not your friend. It undermines individual rights and individual experience. Cultural relativism treats humans like mindless machines.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      Cultural relativism and morality are two entirely different things. Cutting the genitals of children isn’t ‘culture’, it’s immoral. A procedure with the same medical term, applied to consenting people, would be culture.

      I support the right of people to choose if they, themselves, undergo genital mutilation or foot binding. Regarding bride-burning, I’m going to assert that the ratio of consensual to nonconsensual burnings is close enough to zero to ban the entire practice. Whether direct banning is the most effective way of stopping it is a political science question that only political science can answer.

  5. Posted May 16, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    Great post. I was actually thinking about writing a post in response to Kristof’s article. He writes about such great stuff, I always want to post about him!

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